Category Archives: Kathy M. Newman

The Culture of Success

This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar on the college novel. We started with This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s bizarre, Princeton-set contribution to the genre. The main character, Amory Blaine, starts life in Minneapolis with many material advantages. But his doting mother is an alcoholic, and his father washes out as a salesman. Amory is a failure: in college he goes on alcoholic benders and then flunks his end-of-the-year exams. This forces him off the editorial board of the Princetonian, and soon after he drops out of college completely.

The novel, which hews closely to Fitzgerald’s own life, also chronicles Amory’s failed relationships, including his relationship with the Southern belle Rosalind, the most Zelda-like character in the novel. Rosalind rejects Amory because she doesn’t want to live like “squaw” on his measly advertising salary of $275 a month (about $60,000 a year in today’s dollars). At the end of the novel Amory takes the rap for a friend who brought a single woman to a hotel (thus violating the Mann act), quits his job, loses his mother and his father figure Monsignor Darcy to death, and, in the last line, he names his only true accomplishment: “I know myself and that is all!”

I asked students in the seminar—11 women and one transgender student, three-quarters of them born abroad and representing perhaps a new global elite—what they thought of Amory’s trajectory. They agreed that he had mostly failed by end of the novel, but they also believed that he had gained wisdom, and that he had become a better person.

I also asked my students to define success for themselves. Their answers surprised me. One wrote that success was “not only academic success.” One defined success as “accomplishing my goals,” but with the caveat that “my goals can vary and not be traditionally defined.” One wants to “have a family and a job I love.” Another wants to learn Chinese, to play the guitar, and to have time for travel, music, and photography. One wants to “do something important.” One wants to “learn to cook.” One wants to find her voice. They wrote words like “satisfied,” “happy,” “friends,” and “family.”

As advocates for working people, how do we define success? Is there a contrast between our definition of success and how my students at Carnegie Mellon University define it? I also wonder about this as a parent when I find myself fighting with my 10-year-old and my 7-year-old—yet again—about tests, homework, and music lessons.

I worry about both my students and my children when I think about how the great recession has made our culture more competitive than ever. Is success for our children defined by striving, sacrificing, foregoing sleep, battling eating disorders, getting yelled at when they can’t focus during their violin lessons, getting the best grades and test scores, needing Ritalin, winning the most competitions, contemplating suicide, participating in the most activities, getting into the best schools, needing anti-anxiety medication, getting a high paying job, and then starting the cycle all over again for their children?

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some stats about college life from the blog Challenge Success: Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. In a recent survey of Stanford students, 12% had suicidal thoughts. According to a 2006 study of students attending two northeastern universities, “17% reported that they purposely injured themselves at some point in their lives,” and 70% of those said that had done so multiple times. In other cases college debt has led to suicide. Even younger teens in the US are buckling under the pressure, such as the three stressed out teens from Newton, MA who killed themselves in the span of just a few months.

What if, instead, we define success like this post, which went viral this summer, on how to give our kids a 1970s style summer? The writer, Melissa Fenton, advocated for the joys of imaginative play, wandering the neighborhood, drinking straight from the hose, doing just OK in school, being curious, watching cartoons, getting lost in a book, riding a bike fast on a dirt path, catching tadpoles, hanging out with friends after school.

What if we defined success in those terms? That kind of success could mean finding an affordable college that’s a good fit, or maybe not going to college at all, wandering the country, traveling the world, growing up, finding one’s path, working with dignity for some reasonable amount of money, and maybe (or maybe not) starting the cycle all over again for their children.

On the other hand, if families like mine—comfortable and certainly middle class— adopt the tenets of “slow parenting,” will my children become lazy, listless, and unfocused? Will they fail to get into a good college—or into any college? Will they end up without resilience, or with a bad work ethic? Will they drop precipitously into the working class?

Then again, would that be the worst thing in the world?

Indeed it might not be. Barbara Jensen argues powerfully for the existence of different cultures associated with working and middle class parenting in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. Jensen argues that working-class families privilege kinship and community over striving and the pressure cooker of high expectations. When I’m being honest with myself I, too, want kinship and community for my children more than I want them to have glorious and exalted careers.

It could be argued that my lament is that of the privileged. Challenge Success, the national organization that raises many of these same questions, is centered at Stanford University, and some of the parenting sessions held there, in the heart of Silicon Valley, attract some of the wealthiest and most successful parents in the country.

But the paradigms associated with middle class success since the great recession, especially in the realm of education, while stressful for families like mine, have been crippling for the poor and the working class. Education reformers, using the rhetoric of “grit” and the tools of testing, standardization, and austerity, have been gutting public schools, creating charter schools that harshly discipline poor black and brown children, and re-segregating public education. Today in the South and the Southwest of the United States more than 70% of public school children are poor.

The rhetoric of “grit” in particular has been used to argue that children who are poor have more experience with failure, and thus more potential to succeed. The truth is something different. Poverty creates a negative climate for learning—from factors such as lack of pre-natal nutrition, to lack of exposure to reading and vocabulary for toddlers, to the way in which the violence and insecurity of poor neighborhoods causes PTSD and rewires a child’s brain. These become staggering disadvantages to overcome within already underfunded and overburdened schools. Poverty, currently affecting 45 millions Americans, doesn’t foster grit. Instead poverty makes it harder to achieve success—no matter how we define it.

So how do we fight for more people to have access to the American Dream and, at the same time, challenge the accepted pathways to that dream? Can we challenge the culture of striving, overwork, and competition that is making our students and our children miserable, even suicidal? We want more people to be more successful, but don’t we also want to challenge the culture of success?

Kathy M. Newman

60 Years Later: On the Waterfront and Working-Class Studies

For most Americans On the Waterfront is not a politically controversial film—it’s simply one of the best films of all time. Many know that the film’s director Elia Kazan did something shady and some might even know that he testified against his former Communist allies at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). An even smaller group might know that after testifying Kazan took out a full page New York Times ad to justify his decision.

But for the American left, Kazan is one of the worst traitors in American cultural history. When progressive scholars write about On the Waterfront, they draw parallels between Kazan, who betrayed his friends in order to clear his name (and to keep working in film), and Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando], who betrayed the members of his mob crew in order to clear his conscience of the wrong he had done in their name.

Kazan has done much to fuel this interpretation of the film. In his 1988 autobiography, A Life, Kazan explained the parallel between his naming names and Terry Malloy’s testimony before the Waterfront Commission: “When Brando, at the end [of On the Waterfront], yells as Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ’I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”

But if we reduce On the Waterfront to Kazan’s personal story we lose sight of the real working-class social formation out of which this film was born and overlook the genuine progressive political commitments that led both Kazan and Schulberg to make On the Waterfront despite great obstacles.

The social formation of the postwar docks was rooted in the hiring process known as the “shape up.” It was estimated that there were half as many jobs as there were men who lined up for them every morning. Arthur Miller, who wrote several plays about the waterfront himself, described the “shape up” as he witnessed it in the late 1940s:

I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day. After distributing the checks to his favorites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over and in his generosity tossed them into the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometimes getting into bad fights. Their cattle like acceptance of this humiliating process struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself. It was though they had lost the mere awareness of hope.

On the Waterfront began as a response to these working conditions—not as a vehicle for Kazan’s revenge. The film began in 1951, before the HUAC hearings, with Budd Schulberg, a self-described Hollywood “prince”—a writer who was the son of movie mogul B. P. Schulberg. Schulberg had never met Kazan when he was asked by a small film company, Monticello, to write a screenplay based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic series, Crime on the Waterfront, which had been published in the New York Sun.

Schulberg became obsessed with the waterfront after Johnson introduced him to one of Johnson’s main sources: Father “Pete” Corridan, whom Schulberg described as “a rangy, fast-talking, chain-smoking West Side [priest] who talked the darndest language I ever heard, combining the gritty vocabulary of the longshoremen with mob talk, the statistical findings of a trained economist and the teachings of Christ.” Schulberg continued to obsess about the docks even after Monticello folded and the project was declared dead. After the publicity surrounding Kazan’s HUAC testimony, Schulberg wrote Kazan a letter expressing sympathy for the “vilification he was undergoing,” and, later, after they met for lunch, Kazan proposed they work together on a film about the Trenton Six—six African American youth who had been convicted of killing a white shop owner. Schulberg had other ideas: why shouldn’t the two of them work together on his waterfront film? Kazan agreed.

Though Howard Lawson, a blacklisted screenwriter, described On the Waterfront as the ultimate Hollywood film, the film was quashed by Hollywood more than once. In 1952, when Schulberg and Kazan tried to get Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, to produce the film, Zanuck told them, “what you’ve written is exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.” Finally, in late 1952, when they were depressed and about the to junk the film, a washed-up producer, Sam Spiegel, agreed to bankroll it. Filming was completed in 1953, and On the Waterfront was set to debut in the spring of 1954—just in time, everyone hoped, to help the honest dockworkers win an election against the real life “Johnny Friendly” types who controlled the docks.

Throughout the filmmaking, Kazan was inspired by Schulberg’s commitment to the dockworkers’ cause, and he saw Schulberg’s engagement with the subject matter as “passionate and true.” Kazan acknowledged that “Budd had made himself….a champion of humanity on that strip of shore.”

What about Kazan’s engagement? In a much less quoted passage from his autobiography, Kazan explained that his attachment to On the Waterfront came from a desire to show his old lefty enemies that he was the true progressive when it came to representing the working class: “I was…determined to show my old ‘comrades,’ those who’d attacked me so viciously, that there was an anti-Communist left, and that we were the true progressives and they were not. I’d come back to fight.”

This quote points to another parallel between Kazan and Terry Malloy: they were both fighters. In the final scene of On the Waterfront, Malloy is beaten nearly to a pulp by Johnny Friendly’s goons. He can barely walk. When his girlfriend Edie (Eva Saint Marie) tries to help him, Father Barry (Karl Malden) waves her off. In 1955, the radical British filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson, argued that this scene is “fascist.” Malloy, through violence, has simply become the new de facto “Johnny Friendly,” just another tough guy who is ready to rise up and exploit his brethren.

Anderson’s argument shows how judging Kazan for his political betrayal can lead to a misreading of the film. The closing scene isn’t fascist. It’s a scene that uses the language of fighting— specifically boxing. Malloy, a former boxer, is down for the count. If Edie or the priest helps him get up, then he can’t continue to fight. In this metaphorical boxing round he’ll be disqualified. And so he gets up, on his own, which means that the round is over but the match is not. He will live to fight again. Finally, in this scene, Malloy has become the contender he always knew he could be.

If you get a chance to see On the Waterfront this month, in honor of its 60th anniversary, think about this. As much as Terry Malloy might represent Kazan, ratting on his former friends, it is also true that Kazan and Schulberg were trying to rat on capitalism, to call out American business practices as corrupt, and to argue that something drastic needed to done to reform the docks. What Kazan did was wrong, but what happened to American dockworkers in this period, arguably, was even worse. Though the bitterness against Kazan has lingered lo these many years, we in working-class studies should reclaim On the Waterfront as one of the important texts for understanding what happened to American labor in the postwar period. We do so not to redeem Kazan, but to honor the workers that he and Schulberg were trying to represent.

Kathy M. Newman

Serfs for Hire: Learning about Labor from Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones

At first glance HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a comedy in which men (only) vie for immortality behind computer screens, while Game of Thrones is a brutal drama in which men and women vie for immorality on the battlefield, while despots remove the heads of those who usually deserve better. Yet both follow the troop movements of those who seek freedom from tyranny, and, in the process, they reveal something about the capricious nature of justice and even offer some lessons about power in the workplace.

It could be argued that we will not learn much about the serfs of the 21st century by analyzing Silicon Valley. A 2013 survey found that the average salary in the tech industry is $87,811. But even though tech workers earn much more than the average American worker, Silicon Valley critiques the instability of tech labor in the neoliberal era, and it also lobs brickbats at the totalitarian nature of corporate power.

The long suffering hero of Silicon Valley is the honorable Richard the anxious-hearted (comedian Thomas Middleditch), a bug-eyed, curly haired awkward boy/man/genius who has invented a way for audio and video files to be compressed at high speeds with no loss of quality. Richard is awkward with girls and pukes when he is stressed out. This happens frequently, as the two most eccentric and capricious head honchos in Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, head of the fictional company Hooli, and Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, vie for Richard’s algorithmic treasure. After much agonizing, Richard turns down Gavin’s $10 million offer to buy his code and instead accepts Peter’s much smaller offer of $200,000 in seed money in order to to retain control of his company, Pied Piper, and his algorithm.

But from episode to episode, Richard and his merry men are not sure if they will be able to keep their funding, their jobs, or the house they live in. They are serfs of the realm ruled by eccentric, narcissistic titans. For all of their privilege, they act out the drama of contingent labor. For all of the hoopla surrounding their intelligence, and for all of the money invested in their potential, they can lose their funding at the whim of their overlords.  And without this funding they could lose their jobs, their health care, and their homes as well as their intellectual property.

Even when they have jobs, they don’t always have control over their labor. When Richard’s friend best friend Big Head is hired away by Hooli, Gavin learns that Big Head doesn’t have the knowledge to help them reverse engineer Richard’s complicated code. So Big Head is kept “on contract,” but taken “off project.” He finds others of his kind on the roof of the Hooli building—barbecuing stuff, tossing footballs, and trying to think of ways to kill time.

The tech workers on Silicon Valley do not control their destiny. Episode six makes this point in a bizarre story line involving a self-driving car that is programmed to drive to billionaire investor Peter’s private island. Instead, it takes the business manager of Pied Piper onto a container ship, leaving him trapped at sea, surrounded only by automated forklifts.

The serfs of Silicon Valley are dependent on the whims of bizarre and wicked rulers like Gavin Belsen and Peter Gregory. Do such characters really exist? Absolutely. Silicon Valley is seen in the tech industry as a roman à clef—a thinly veiled satire of some of the very real and very creepy people who run the tech world. And a recent legal settlement reveals what we have long suspected: that many of today’s tech overlords have conspired to keep their employees’ salaries as low as possible. As a US district judge ruled last month, Apple, Google, and Intel, to name a few, are guilty of wage fixing and driving down salaries by illegally colluding not to poach each other’s employees.

Silicon Valley’s anti-poaching conspiracy violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which states that any conspiracy that restrains trade or commerce is illegal and can be punished by fine, imprisonment, or both. But the practice is old, and, possibly, even medieval. A 1364 British ordinance referring to shoe cobblers read: Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.” In this most recent lawsuit, tech industry plaintiffs, who filed this suit in 2001, were seeking 3 billion in damages, but have settled for $324 million, which averages out to about $4,000 per plaintiff—a moral victory but a financial defeat.

Should we feel sorry for the tech serfs of Silicon Valley? Maybe not. But should we see in their labor situation something of the precariousness of the rest of us in the 99%? Should we see in their experiences some similarities to the working conditions of contingent academic faculty; of low-wage fast food, Walmart, and healthcare workers; of blamed and battered public schools teachers; of undocumented workers; and of indentured college graduates?

We should. And that’s why we should also heed the lessons of Game of Thrones. We should build an army of the 99%, employ the cunning of the imp, the tech savvy of the geeks, and the moral ferocity of Brienne of Tarth. It would be cool if we could get some wolves and some dragons, too. United, and armed with the knowledge of our true worth, are we not more powerful than the 1% that sits upon the Iron Throne?

Kathy M. Newman

Still Learning from the Scholarship Boy

2014 is still young, but we have lost a handful of British working-class scholars and activists who have been pivotal for working-class studies and politics, starting with cultural studies legend Stuart Hall, who died in February. In March, Tim Strangleman noted that we lost two British politicians who have been especially important voices for the working class, Tony Benn and Bob Crow. And in April we lost Richard Hoggart, the infamous Leeds “scholarship boy” who was orphaned at eight but managed to study and work his way into an elite British academic class. He was one of the original founders of the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and his important 1957 work, The Uses of Literacy, is one of the founding texts of working-class studies.

Richard Herbert “Bert” Hoggart was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, a veteran of Boer war, died just two years later. Hoggart was raised by his mother until he was 8, at which point his mother died of tuberculosis. At Hoggart’s mother’s funeral, an aunt quipped that “orphanages are very good nowadays,” but fortunately for Hoggart, he was sent to live with his grandmother.

Though Hoggart failed math, he eventually won a scholarship to Leeds University.  He served in North Africa during WWII, and after the war he applied for nine assistant professorships and one job in the John Lewis department store. Eight universities turned him down, but the University of Hull hired him, and Hoggart he stayed there for 13 years. After an influential book on W.H. Auden in 1951 and The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Hoggart started the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in 1964 and hired Stuart Hall as his deputy director.

Hoggart’s legacy is important for us, because without Hoggart, it could be argued, there would be no working-class studies. The Uses of Literacy, exemplifies some of the core ideas and approaches at the heart of our field, starting with the idea of taking the working class and its culture seriously. As Sue Owens notes, The Uses of Literacy, “put the working class on the cultural map, not as objects of middle-class scrutiny but as people with a culture and a point of view of their own.”

According to Stuart Hall, Hoggart defined culture as “how working-class people spoke and thought, what language and common assumptions about life they shared, in speech and action, what social attitudes informed their daily practice, what moral categories they deployed, even if only aphoristically, to make judgments about their own behaviour and that of others —including, of course, how they brought all this to bear on what they read, saw and sang.”  Hall’s summary would serve as a good description of much of the work now being done within working-class studies.

In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart also provides a blueprint for the working-class academic memoir, the kind of writing that acknowledges that those who are born into working-class families but ascend to academia never completely shed a certain psychic pain and sense of dislocation. Hoggart wrote about how the scholarship boy is cut off from his parents and his community by the community’s perception that “E’s bright.” This kind work today is represented at its best by Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America and the essays in This Fine Place so Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.

Hoggart’s work seems especially relevant in post-economic collapse America. While the Britain of his youth was terribly class bound, perhaps we are nearly as class bound today in the US, where class mobility is at an all time low. And, though class mobility was a necessity for Hoggart personally, it was also a sore spot. He hated prejudice against working-class people, but he did not celebrate the absorption of working-class culture into mainstream, Americanized consumer culture. He hated rock n roll, 1950s British “milk bars” (what in the US we called the soda counter in a drug store), and Hollywood films.

Oddly, Hoggart was at once a cultural conservative, privileging literature and literary criticism, and an institutional radical. In founding the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies, he cleared the way for literature’s decline as the primary focus of English departments. According to the British writer Michael Bailey, “Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’”

Though Hoggart was an institutional radical, he was not an activist. He claimed that he was different from E.P. Thompson in that he tended to “be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets.” He wasn’t a public protester, and he had strong feelings about those who were: “The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting.” He believed he could make his greatest contribution as a writer.

In this sense, Hoggart has made an important contribution indeed, with such books as Teaching Literature (1963), Higher Education and Cultural Change (1966), Contemporary Cultural Studies (1966), Speaking to Each Other (1970), Only Connect: On Culture and Communication (1972), An English Temper (1982), and most recently, Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality (2004).

Interestingly, Hoggart argued that the common thread in his written work was the idea that everyone has the right to be heard: “Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways.”

Hoggart is now gone, just a few years shy of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2018). But how many of us, and how many of our working-class students, today have a voice because this tenacious scholarship boy dared to transcend his class and then continued to fight for the right of working-class people to maintain and study their own way of life?

Kathy M. Newman and Sherry Linkon

 

Which Side Is Culture On?

Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.

This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?

I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?

We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.

cartoonHere’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.

But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.

What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.

While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.

In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.

What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.

Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”

At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.

Kathy M. Newman

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.

Embrace the relationship between music and social movements. Seeger believed that if you could get a crowd to join in a song, you could get a crowd to join in a movement. Like his father, Charles Seeger, who argued that “to make music is the essential thing—to listen to it is an accessory,” Pete Seeger believed that song brought the individual out of the self and into something larger: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in—as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Of course, Seeger could have chosen other vehicles for participation, but he believed that there was something special about songs. “Songs,” he explained, “are a way of binding people to a cause.”

It’s OK to be middle class. Seeger came from a family of “doctors, shopkeepers, and intellectuals.” His parents were also classically trained musicians who divorced when he was young. But even Seeger’s step-mother encouraged him, noticing that he had a special talent for “song leading.” Seeger went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and, later, Harvard, which he did not like. After Harvard, Seeger made the transition from scholar of working-class culture to maker/participant. The Almanacs were so named because every working-class home had two books: a bible for the next life and an almanac for this one. Seeger’s next band, The Weavers, was named for a play by German author Gerhart Hauptmann about a group of Silesian (now Poland) weavers who rebelled against the mechanization of their craft in the 1840s. Seeger, who was not from a working-class family, was a champion of workers, workers’ folk traditions, unions, the labor movement, and the dignity of work. Moreover, he was embraced by workers wherever he went, from the CIO struggles in Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 1940s, to the postal workers organizing against the hiring of non-union workers in 2014.

Make stuff with your own hands. On the other hand, perhaps, Seeger might have been a voluntary member of the working class. In the 1940s, he bought a piece of land next to the Hudson River for $1700.There he built his own log cabin. It took him several tries to get the giant stone fireplace right, but as he was finishing it he placed a few of the rocks thrown at him in the infamous Paul Robeson/Peekskill riots in the structure as a reminder. To build furniture for the house, Wilkinson writes, Seeger scavenged the wood from abandoned packing crates in New York City on his way home from singing gigs. By mastering the world with his hands, Seeger was able to connect the future of the human race to the future of the planet: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

You have to choose sides, but you can have as many causes as you like. Seeger embraced every progressive American cause, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, to environmentalism, the anti-war movement, the AIDs epidemic, and even the 2011 Occupy Movement. There were songs that explained how to negotiate and use a union to improve your life on the job (Talking Union Blues) and songs about union towns, their smog and their devotion to the CIO (Pittsburgh). There were songs about how to build stuff with your own hands (If I had a Hammer) and songs about how to keep hope in the face of racial oppression (We Shall Overcome). There were songs about heroic and legendary black workers (John Henry) and songs about women union organizers (Union Maid) and songs about how America belongs to all of us (This Land is Our Land). There were songs about the Hudson river, which he was instrumental in cleaning up (Sailing Up my Dirty Stream), and songs about the Vietnam war (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy), and even songs condemning Stalin (Big Joe Blues).

You can have a long, productive life if you do not define your success according to the market. Seeger famously testified in front of HUAC in 1955, refusing to answer any questions that violated his right to religion, free speech, and association. He has jokingly called this moment a “relief,” because the fame he was experiencing with The Weavers was overwhelming him. By contrast, for most blacklisted artists, the 1950s were a nightmare. Some betrayed their former friends and comrades, others died from the stress. Some left the country, some wrote under false names, and many languished without a steady livelihood for years. Seeger was undaunted by more than a decades’ worth of rebuff from HUAC, anti-communists who canceled his performance contracts and picketed his concerts, and TV executives who refused to let him perform on television. Seeger simply kept singing, accepting invitations from any group that would have him, year after year, until mainstream American culture finally accepted Seeger’s unique sound.

Think small. Perhaps you are a union organizer, trying to get a little more justice for your members. Perhaps you are a graduate student writing about worker struggles, or worker culture. Perhaps you have a bit of talent on an instrument, and you perform for money or just gather with friends to raise your voices in unison. Whatever you are doing, no matter how small it might seem, it matters. Seeger tells us: “Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Instead, he insists, “The world will be solved by millions of small things.”

Kathy M. Newman

Reading Capital: Books that Shaped Work in America

I teach American literature and media history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and for many years I have taught a course called Capital Fictions—a class in which we examine the ways in which literature shaped, and was shaped by, the US economy at the turn-of-the-last-century. Though I never teach all of the same novels twice, we often read The Jungle, Sister Carrie, House of Mirth, and William J. Weldon’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Of course, as a Marxist/Feminist/Public School Activist at Carnegie Mellon University, I often feel like an outlier—a radical humanist on Andrew Carnegie’s 21st century techno-robotic campus.

So I was pleased, and rather surprised, when I saw that the U.S. Department of Labor—in honor of its one-hundred-year anniversary—is assembling a list of books that shaped American ideas about work. DOL officials, after seeing a 2012 “Books that Shaped America” exhibition at the Library of Congress, were inspired to make a similar call for books about work in order to emphasize the “significant role published works have played in the shaping American workers and workplaces.”

In drawing attention to the DOL’s project on our blog, I am falling into the public relations trap expertly laid by Carl Fillichio, the senior advisor for public affairs and communications at the U.S. Department of Labor. While his book project seems progressive on the face of it, it has also been great public relations, as the mainstream media has done more than a dozen stories on the DOL’s project. Fillichio himself is a capitalist intellectual, coming to the DOL from Lehman brothers, where he was a senior vice president in charge of promoting the firm’s “thought leadership” and philanthropy.

The list of books that shaped American labor is long (102 so far) and eclectic, featuring such classics from children’s literature as Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Doreen Cronin’s radical story of barnyard animals that go on strike, Click, Clack, Moo. Some of my “Capital Fictions” are there, including The Jungle and Sister Carrie. Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, is there (perhaps an odd choice, unless, like me, you decided to pursue the profession of WOMAN WRITER after reading it), along with the poetic Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In addition to some radical works there are some classics that staunchly defend capitalism, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

It is worth asking how books like these have shaped our ideas about work. Take Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. This novel gives us the perspective a young woman, Carrie Meeber, who comes from a small Midwest town to the booming city of Chicago in the late 1800s. Carrie tires quickly of factory work, and we see her struggle to find and keep a job. But then we chart her good fortune as she lucks into a career on the stage. She ends the novel a Broadway celebrity—successful, but still unsatisfied. The novel makes my students wonder: what is the secret to happiness? Is it hard work? Is it good fortune? Is it the ability to buy pretty things? Or is it relationships, education, and a search for deeper meaning?

Another classic on the list is also about turn-of-the-last century Chicago, The Jungle. My students recoil at the story—so grisly it is hard to believe that everything that happens in the novel could happen to a single family. A powerful worker, Jurgis, is brought down by injury and prison time; his strong friend and relative, Marija, is reduced to prostitution after many hard years in the packing plants; Jurgis’s youngest relatives become haggard, and, eventually die from factory work, and Ona, Jurgis’s wife, is raped by her boss and later dies in childbirth. But the students find themselves immersed in Sinclair’s world, and they respond to it with intelligence. When I let them pursue creative assignments, as I did this last fall, one student made a brilliant version of Monopoly based on The Jungle, and another student made a movie trailer for the novel that emphasized the dramatic sweep of the plot.

My students at CMU are from privileged backgrounds, and they often enter the classroom cynical about the plight of workers in the present and uniformed about workers in the past. But I find that through the reading of stories they become more open and more critical—of both the past and the present. Stories like Sister Carrie and The Jungle help to nurture their empathy, give them deeper understandings of place, and allow them to dwell in different times.

What do you think should be on the list? The project is accepting suggestions for additions to its list.

I hope you will agree that we need stories about work in order to understand what work means to us today and what it has meant to us in the past. We also need these stories so can decide what work will mean—and be—in the future. As Karl Marx (none of whose books are yet on the list at the DOL) reminds us, “the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

Kathy M. Newman